Growing up in my house with three older siblings and a father who demanded excellence, you had no choice but to develop a sharp tongue. With a father as a lawyer, I felt no pressure from him to become an attorney; it was just something I felt strongly about from a very early age. I wanted to perform impassioned closing arguments in front of juries, like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or Pacino in And Justice for All.
John McDonald: Career Highlights
1989: Graduates from Georgetown University Law Center
1990: Starts at the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia as an assistant district attorney
1995: Moves to the law firm of Cozen O’Connor as a litigation associate
2002: Gets recruited by Toll Brothers as chief litigation counsel
2007: Becomes deputy general counsel of Toll Brothers
2010: Is promoted to general counsel of Toll Brothers
Law school does very little to train you for dealing with the real-life problems you encounter as a lawyer, but it does provide the building blocks needed to analyze legal issues. To be an in-house lawyer, you wear multiple hats: you have to be a businessperson, a lawyer, a trusted advisor and partner, but also the company cop. You have to learn to weigh risks and apply judgment; those are things you do not learn in a classroom. When I look back at my law school training, my major takeaway was preparation. The key to success as a lawyer, no matter what kind of law you practice, is preparation. You have to be more prepared than your adversary, and when you walk into the boardroom, you have to understand the issues and have the facts at your fingertips.
When I got out of law school and passed the bar exam, I began my career as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia district attorney’s (DA) office. I must admit, I had no burning passion to put away bad guys; I wanted to be a trial attorney. Starting my career as an assistant district attorney was the smartest career decision I’ve ever made. When you go to work in a prosecutor’s office or public defender’s office, you are in front of a judge and trying your first case in two weeks. For the law students who are seduced by a significant salary from a big-name firm, they won’t see a courtroom for five or six years and, even then, as an observer in support of a senior partner. I would tell any law student who wants to be a litigator to take a similar path; go to work for the government and get hands-on courtroom experience quickly. This will help you become the best litigator you can be. Eventually, you will catch up to the compensation level of your peers that were drawn to the big firms, but they will never catch up to your trial skills.
After the DA’s office, I went to the Philadelphia law firm Cozen O’Connor. I was not ready to leave the DA’s office, but I prosecuted a front-page, high-profile criminal case, and the civil firms came to me with offers and promises that I would continue to develop as a trial lawyer trying complex civil cases. Going from prosecuting street crime to a mundane civil practice is, indeed, a difficult transition for a young lawyer, and no, it’s not as exciting or interesting—but you have a job to do and a client to serve, and you work hard to become the master of the facts as you would with any case.
My father, my siblings, my wife, my closest friends—none of them could believe that I was considering leaving a partnership at a law firm to go in-house. They saw it as a step back and, more importantly, a step away from what I loved the most about being a lawyer. I was a chronic workaholic who loved and thrived in the combat of litigation. Despite their advice, I took the job with Toll Brothers as chief litigation counsel, and it has been the second best choice I have made in my career.
Toll Brothers was the only company that could have lured me away from an active litigation practice. It was clear to me from the beginning that it is not a company that regards its legal department as a necessary evil, as many other public companies do. Bob Toll, the company’s founder, is a former litigator; Doug Yearley, the company’s CEO, is a former litigator; half the board members are lawyers. It is a company that respects how legal training shapes the mind, and it is a company that has a well-earned reputation for being aggressive in its approach to litigation, which is a perfect fit for my litigation style.
Being general counsel requires you to wear many hats, serve many clients and interests, juggle many things at the same time, and do all of it while serving as managing partner for a small law firm. You also serve as the company’s chief ethics officer, which is particularly challenging in the construction industry, where your employees are often faced with ethical choices from business partners who are always lobbying for business and willing to position themselves to get that business. Lawyers emerging from law firms, especially litigators, have not developed the skill set to do many of these things. Law school certainly doesn’t prepare you for the management and administrative aspects of the job, but it all becomes a part of a day’s work. ABQ
Beyond the Boardroom
For the past 12 years, away from his office, John McDonald has also hosted the Ann N. McDonald Memorial Basketball Tournament to raise money for breast cancer research. McDonald has combined his passion for the game with a cause that each day fights against the dreaded disease that claimed his mother and afflicts thousands of women and families each year. His family, friends, and colleagues get together every August for the highly competitive weekend basketball tournament, and through their generous contributions they have raised more than $100,000. McDonald is also serving as the chair for the 2013 gala event for Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a Philadelphia-based organization that provides support for victims of the disease.